Truly This Is the Best of All Possible Basketball Worlds
The National Basketball Association’s playoff season is in full effect, and with that in mind, I’d like to talk about one thing that I think separates the NBA from all other professionally sports (and from pretty much all non-athletic careers too). Namely: I believe that the players in the NBA are not just the best basketball players in the United States, but the best possible basketball players as well.
To understand what I mean by this, let’s compare basketball with a less popular sport. Fencing, maybe, or bobsledding. Few people have the chance to even try these activities once, let alone to practice them at the rate needed to become the top in their field. Beyond that, there is not a huge amount of celebrity or (presumably) money given to the world’s top bobsledders or fencers, which means that even naturals might be disinclined to stick with it unless they truly feel passion for the sport. It seems highly likely that there is a girl somewhere in Oxnard or Detroit or wherever who, had she just picked up a sword, would have been better than Lee Kiefer. Similarly, there is surely a boy who could have out-bobsledded Steven Holcomb, had he any idea what bobsledding really is and access to the proper facilities. Which is to say: In every other sport there exists persons who would be better than the sport’s current best player, if only they’d had the same upbringing.
Leave the wide world of sports and this becomes even clearer: The best writers, for example, are actually just the most talented of those people who have the time and means (not to mention schooling, proper upbringing, etc.) to spend huge amounts of time sitting and thinking and writing. For example, the 19th century undoubtedly lost more than one great novel because its writer was an illiterate factory worker who toiled away for 80 hours a week before prematurely succumbing to poverty-borne illness.
Basketball doesn’t have that same problem, largely because of the height of its stars. The average American male is 5’10”. The average NBA player is 6’7”. Think about how few people you know that are 6’7”. According to this low-tech statistics site I found, there are approximately 2.5 million American men over 6’4”, but we can expect that the majority of those are still below the 6’7” average NBA height*. There are only 135,000 over 6’7”, and around 3,500 above 6’10”. The height needed to excel in the NBA is rare, and when someone has it, it’s obvious. In America, there an exists an infrastructure that recognizes and encourages people who are this tall to pursue basketball. High school coaches seek out exceptionally tall students. Those with talent are further incentivized with the possibility of a college scholarship; the best college players enter the NBA.
Obviously there isn’t a straight line between being tall and athletic and achieving success in the NBA. At the same time, though, it’s hard to imagine a 7’ athletic guy who never tried basketball. And if this guy was any good, it’s improbable that he wouldn’t have pursued the sport to the point where he’d the system that would eventually put him in front of those who would be in a position to make him a pro basketball player, should his talent warrant it. It stands to reason, then, that the NBA is comprised of the best possible basketball players.
Our society likes to think of itself as a strict meritocracy. It’s clearly not, but the NBA actually is. We live in a world filled with chance and what-ifs. Sometimes that’s great, but lots of times it isn’t. It’s incredibly reassuring to me that there exists one place where I know** that the best players are actually the best. So the next time you watch Lebron dunk, I want you to think about how you just saw the best basketball player possible do the best thing. That’s pretty cool.
*Yes, there are NBA players who aren’t exceptionally tall, but they’re a (sorry) small minority. Given that the best players, i.e. the ones whose names people who don’t pay attention to sports know, are all on the tall side (Michael Jordan’s 6’6”, Kobe’s 6’7”, Lebron’s 6’8”, Bird’s 6’9, Chamberlain’s 7’1, etc.) it seems unlikely that there’s a person of unexceptional height who could’ve been the best.
**To any reasonable extent. Yes, it’s totally possible to fall into an endless stream of hypotheticals (What if there was a kid who would’ve been the best but he died in a car accident at age 13? What if Michael Jordan’s dad had gotten a taller woman pregnant, and thus would’ve created an even taller son?). Beyond that, there definitely are some people who could’ve been great basketball players, but who found themselves unable or willing to play, due to outside circumstances. If we’re being reasonable though, I think it’s fair to assume that the currently NBA would fairly evenly overlap with the best possible NBA, and that the best player in the NBA (Lebron) is also the best possible basketball player.